The story of this playground begins with a description of what could be a city park most anywhere:  14 acres, a soccer field, quite a few trees, and a set of wood-and-metal playground equipment that didn’t get much use from anyone past the age of four.

What happens next is a wonderful story of a how a non-traditional (i.e. not focused on equipment) playground space grew gradually and organically out of what the park users themselves wanted to do and build, not what someone designed on their behalf, until eventually even the underused wood-and-metal equipment became a vital play area once again.  And for all of $11,600!

Central to the space is the 20×40 sandpit in which  a simple $64 water tap facilitates endless water play.  Don’t miss the comparisons to elaborate, engineered water play solutions in the latter half of the presentation…proof, if you readers needed any, that playgrounds don’t need to be expensive for good play to occur.

I’m intrigued, too, to see the role of sympathetic park personnel in this story:  they built the sandpit and donated leftover supplies and installed new fencing in response to users’ needs.  Wherever I go I hear alot of grousing about the maintenance people at parks and schools.  They’re often blamed for the playgrounds not being what they could be, but  I’m not convinced that’s more than a convenient excuse for the designers, at least most of the time. 

Seeing great play happen builds commitment and a desire to help, in the park workers, in the neighbors, in the parents, and even in those icy-hearted city planners, whose command to tear down the swingset was resisted, and reversed.

Thanks to Jutta Mason for sharing her and Nayssam Shujauddin’s inspiring prezi on Dufferin Grove!

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

In 1980 an adventure playground (Byggelegeplads, ‘Builder’)  was demolished under police projection in the densely populated ‘Black Square’ of Nørrebro in Copenhagen.  The residents didn’t let it go quietly.

They had installed it themselves on a summer day in1973  by simply driving a truck with boards, nails and tools into the sole open space of their decrepit slum–where the city had showed more interest in parking lots than play provisions.   It was an instant hit; a study showed that at least 100 children used the playground daily.

Initially, the municipal authorities were supportive of the grassroots effort, committing funds to maintain and staff the play space.  Two threats from developers and mayors wielding urban renewal plans were beaten back.    But in spite of a poll of local residents showing 80% support for the retention of the playground, the city insisted in 1980 that it be cleared to make way for ‘improvements’.  The residents blockaded the site, and officials responded by sending 800 police officers to enforce their orders.

Here is the description of what happened next, translated (poorly, my apologies!) from the original Danish here:

“The 29 April initiated the municipality’s total clearing of the area. Under a massive police presence, laborers from Midtsjællands Demolition Company knock down play equipment, and activists have to jump for their lives to avoid being killed. Thousands of residents and activists  formed picket lines and block Noerrebrogade and Åboulevarden. Although it was a peaceful action, the police strike hard and many are sent to the emergency room with concussions and other injuries. About 70 were arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct” or “violence against officials in action”. 14 were placed in solitary confinement for a week as part of the police investigation. When the police left, over one thousand residents and children began rebuilding the playground with materials from the nearby construction site.”

Huzzah for the playground warriors!

“30 April is relatively quiet on the Builder, but Noerrebrogade remains blocked by blockades, which is a consequence of the outrage in the neighborhood over the municipality and the police violent attack.  The 2nd May  large police force was deployed into the neighborhood to remove the barricades. At the same time the police promised not to touch the Builder until after the meeting of the City Council on Monday.Later in the day however they break their promise, and clear one half of the playground.  The rest is cleared after 3 May using over 1000 officers.   The whole neighborhood explodes in anger, and over the afternoon and evening it comes to constant clashes between residents and police. But this time, the police changed strategy. As Chief Inspector Donald Egetved Sorensen said to radio news’ kid gloves been shelved. ‘ There will no  longer be arrests. Instead, the residents of   Noerrebrogade will face chasing police with dogs, club swinging riot cops and motorcycle cops.

Police declared the area a state of emergency and SUSPENDED THE CONSTITUTION  ‘We will not tolerate lawlessness in the city. And we will not be gentle. We can not guarantee your safety..crowds will be split by force. We intend to clear the street….and everything will be considered as riots’, says the police loudspeaker vans in the evening.”

A neighborhood association  meeting that evening was dissolved by yet another large police force.  Though some continued to fight, the battle was lost, and  construction for the new apartment complexes commenced.   They’re still there.

Beware of municipal officials bearing ‘improvements’ when something already works.


Additional sources:

English language sources for the battle are difficult to come by, so please correct me if there are any inaccuracies here.  There is an extensive history of the Battle for the Builder online, from which the photos in this post are sourced, but it is in Danish and too large a file for the auto-translator.  If any of my Danish readers would like to help with a translation, I’d love to archive it here at Playscapes.  

Just this past April, the  Blågårdens library recreated the Battle of the Builder…in Legos.  So.  Cool.

Posted in Play History

If you’re in the Philadelphia area, don’t miss the chance to join my friend Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop TOMORROW, Saturday October 13, from 10 to 2 to build a pop-up adventure playground in a vacant lot.

It already has a mountain, and yes, a volcano.

The project is part of Tiny WPA, a program initiated by Public Workshop that “places young adults at the forefront of stimulating community engagement and civic innovation in Philadelphia by empowering them to design and build improvements to the City’s public spaces, schools, and micro infrastructure”.

Don’t fail to stop by this weekend for “tinkering, collaboration, and adventure, and conversations about the state of play in Philadelphia and the essential role young adults can play in the design of a city.”

You too can learn to use sharp, spinning power tools…don’t miss it!


Posted in Contemporary Design, Play DIY

One of the things I wish I could bring you more of on the blog is how much projects cost, but I often simply can’t access that information.   So I really appreciate Alexa Uhrich of Skala Design in Vancouver providing me with the expenses of their project to help those of you planning a natural playscape or classroom garden.

“Generous donations were received from the surrounding community. Douglas Fir logs were supplied and delivered by the Vancouver School Board and the boulders were sourced from an adjacent construction site and delivered free of charge to site by Ventana Construction. A special thank you was also extended to local real estate agent Paul Eviston for his contribution by means of a stone carving.”

Communities are often very willing to donate to playground projects, but we need to question why we’re asking them for $50,000-$100,000 when a space like this was developed for under $9,000?   To be fair, there was ‘equipment’ already available at the school, so this installation didn’t even require swings or slides, which should not be neglected in even the most natural of playgrounds.

Project Costs:
$6,763: School Board construction crew costs for demolition, base preparation, supply and installation of timber edging, bark mulch pathways, topsoil and composted mulch, planting, placement of Douglas-fir logs and placement of boulders using truck crane.
$935: Supply and delivery of plants from a local nursery.
$500: Stone carving to thank donor.
$500: Grant from Evergreen ( that went toward purchase of native plants.
The total project construction cost was under $9,000

“As the garden has grown over the last two years, its play value has increased. Kids play hide and seek inside mature native shrubs, dig holes to compost their recess snacks and use the boulders and logs to play games. One of the wonderful things that has been observed in the garden is that kids of all ages play together and often choose to play in this space rather than on nearby equipment.”

I love that they compost their snacks!

[all photos from Skala Design]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

Kulturinsel Einsiedel says that “we build worlds as fantastic as the ones on the computer…that you can experience with ALL your senses!”  And I think that’s important.  Because in all the finger-waggling about childhood obesity it’s time that we acknowledged that the places we’ve been making for outdoor play actually aren’t all that compelling.  Downright boring, in the main.  And yet they’re up against the intense visual landscapes of television and video games.  Why are we surprised when the virtual reality wins?

One of the central ideas here at Playscapes is that play is better when the space for play is better.  And the grown-ups need to take responsibility for making better space.

Kulturinsel Einsiendel has no trouble competing with virtual reality. It’s an adventure playground/treehouse hotel in Neißeaue near Görlitz, Germany and the singular vision of Jürgen Bergmann, who is also the proprieter of “Artistic Wood Design Jürgen Bergmann”.  They make wooden play structures and sculptures for other locations as well, all of which seem to have leapt from the pages of a fantasy storybook.  They refer to themselves as ‘sculptors’ rather than playground makers. “Big, unusual things made of wood“, that is what we reply when people ask what we are doing. Our products are based on our own ideas and designs. Every piece is manufactured only once. Fantasy creature, tree-house, climbing frame castle, bench suite, playable sculpture, landscape art or complex play-areas: Every object is unique.”

And importantly, everything *seems* a bit dangerous, a bit risky, even though they comply with all European safety standards.

Look particularly at how rich in texture–both visual and tactile–their playscapes are.  Most of today’s playgrounds, on the other hand, have basically three textures:  slick metal, slightly rough plastic, slightly more rough solid surfacing/gravel/mulch.  Dull, dull, dull.

P.S.  It’s impossible to show as many pictures of Kulturinsel Einsiedel as it deserves…spend some time on google images and you’ll find many more!  I’ll show some more work from Jürgen Bergmann later in the week.

[photo 2 via wikimedia commons. photo 3 via wikimedia commons. photo 4: via spiegelonlinephoto 6 source. photos 1, 7 & 8 via dd4kids; see also their reviews of other German playgrounds]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Playable Sculpture

As Playscapes approaches 500 posts, I know that the amount of information here is getting unwieldy, especially for new visitors to the blog.  So I’m working with a great creative agency in my hometown to develop a better format, but I also plan to start writing some posts that consolidate past content around a theme, like this one on the topic of adding local context to playgrounds.  It was originally prepared for a guest post at ExternalWorks, and I thank editor Stephen Bird for suggesting the topic.

It is also the first in a series of articles that you may freely repost or republish, as long as you do so without changing the content in any way.  That means including the title and byline at the top of the article, and keeping all links intact. Please note that this is not true of the blog’s content in general, just of these specific posts that are so noted. Thanks in advance for respecting my work as well as that of the playground designers and content originators.  Here goes!


Play Local:  how to add local context to your playground
by Paige Johnson, author of  Playscapes

Playgrounds can be one of the worst offenders in the struggle to make public spaces locally relevant. Following a standard recipe of ‘kit, fence and carpet’ ensures that a play space could be in Milton Keynes or Madagascar, Sydney or South LA. Without context, who’s to tell?

Adding local context to a playground installation increases community commitment to the space, involves local providers, and is just plain more fun. Localised elements can form the basis for new playground installations, or be added to improve existing ones. Here, examples from my four years of writing about playgrounds at Playscapes illustrate strategies for localising the playground.


1.  Consider topography

Whenever possible, playgrounds should make the ground plane itself part of the play, preserving or reflecting local topographies.

Retaining an existing pile of rubble at a reclaimed industrial site in France allowed this playground by Agence TER to fit into a familiar local site AND be more exciting by hanging off its steep side.

Topographies can be simpler constructions as well: this spiral mound in London, made of turf by Mortar and Pestle Studio, recalls similar Elizabethan garden features.

The steep facets of a Parisian playground by BASE landscape architects were inspired by the topography in a photo of a local ‘found’ playscape by Will Ronis.


2.  Use local materials creatively

Everyone has heard about the use of stones and stumps to make a ‘natural playground’. But it takes some additional thoughtfulness to turn ‘natural’ into ‘local’. Robert Tully of Colorado used wood and stone to make a play sculpture modelled on Native American trade beads, and added subtle carving on a sandpit’s cluster of boulders to suggest local turtle species.

Australian artist Fiona Foley used native seed pods for a playground in Sydney designed by Urban Art Projects; not literally but as inspiration for the forms of playground features for the under-7 set.

Vintage playgrounds in Singapore once utilised small mosaic tiles as a unique surface treatment. New Singapore playgrounds should look for modern ways to continue this local tradition.


3.  Look around for history

The pentagonal shape of the continuous playground climber by Annabau reflects the shape of the medieval city of Wiesbaden. Its pole and net construction dips and swoops strategically to provide sightlines to city monuments so that the playscape joins the cityscape.

At the Tower Playground, Danish playground makers Monstrum took the incorporation of local monuments one step further by making a playground entirely composed of roofs from the city of Copenhagen; fulfilling any child’s fantasy of rooftop explorations.

Sometimes looking around for history means retaining beloved features within a new scheme. Spanish firm Urbanarbolismo inexpensively rehabbed an existing playground by painting all of the features from swings to streetlamps in eye-popping orange, coordinated with new safety surfacing.

And then they planted the site by engaging the local community in a ‘Green Battle’ in which 200 people threw seed-containing mud balls at each other until the battlefield/site (and themselves) were completely covered. The seeds included a grass to green the space quickly and native species such as thyme and heather to add permanent color and aroma to the playscape.

It doesn’t get more local than residents throwing mud on each other to make a great new playground!

No public space should be so generic that it can be duplicated half a world away. Combining topography, local materials, and a sense of history help make any playground a unique site for community pride; deeply attached to its local context and sure of its place.


Posted in Contemporary Design, Resources

William H. Whyte – Social Life of Small Urban Places from Robin van Emden on Vimeo.

William H. Whyte’s film “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” is an urban planning classic.  Whyte moves through the mid-century plazas of New York City in a direct, shoe leather observation of why some spaces work, and some don’t; complete with old school charts and graphs.

You really should watch the whole thing (it’s 58 minutes)–the architecture and people are a delight–but pay particular attention to the footage of Harlem street play and kids in an adventure playground, at 1:30 – 2:40, and Whyte’s surprising observation that the playground space was actually under, not over, utilized.

Every designer of outdoor space should be required to watch Whyte’s discussion of the characteristics of a good bench, and many of his observations apply to playgrounds just as well as plazas:

“The number one activity is people looking at other people, but it is a point that is overlooked in many many designs”

“Visual enjoyment (of a site from the street), this secondary use, is every bit as important as the primary use.” 

“The ‘corner’ is a sociable space.”

“People don’t like to talk in the middle of a large space.  They like to find places like steps, edges, flagpoles.”

“The places that people like best are those which open to the action but are slightly recessed, slightly protected. You get a caving feeling.  Just a few honey locusts overhead will do it.” 

“To make a place like this work, you must unfence it!”

Read more about William Whyte at the Project for Public Spaces

Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Resources
Also in the spirit of encouraging you to make your own playscapes, I’m pleased to announce the second title in my effort to make vintage playground classics available again…Paul Friedberg’s Handcrafted Playgrounds from 1975.  Its best description is contained in the book’s own foreword:

“Handcrafted Playgrounds is a sketchbook of designs based on two very simple premises: anyone can build a playground, and the actual process of building it can be as important as the finished product. 

It gives the builders (who should certainly include the children for whom it is planned) a chance to shape their environment, to create something to answer their specific needs. 

All settings, urban, suburban, and rural, are rich in natural and man-made materials suitable for play.  Every child, wherever he or she lives and whatever space is available, can have an exciting playground. All it takes is a little imagination.”

Paul (see an online bio at the Cultural Landscape Foundation) is best known in playgrounds for his innovative 1970s installations in New York City, in which he utilized what were then completely new forms for play:   massive timber constructs, concrete forts that resembled ancient pyramids, and vest-pocket play spaces in trash-strewn vacant lots before temporary parklets were cool.    (See a 2007 article by Deborah Bishop in dwell magazine for photos of Friedberg’s 1970s work, from which the three photos below are taken.)  UPDATE:  Paul has let me know that the last two images are actually the work of Richard Dattner…apologies for the misidentification, but don’t worry,  Dattner’s own book Design for Play will be released on Playscapes soon!

Friedberg was one of first to realize the ideas embodied in the new word ‘playscape’ as discrete from ‘playground’:  a fully three-dimensional landscape space in which purpose-designed components worked together to provide an integrated play experience.

This book reflects that, offering build-it-yourself plans for everything from bridges to benches, spring toys to sprinklers, that can be put together to create a comprehensive play area.   Most are  made from timber, some from tires or other recycled materials like spools and water tanks.

Handcrafted Playgrounds is currently selling for over $100 on amazon, but now you can get a digital copy through playscapes for just $6!

Please remember that this book is still under copyright protection.  Once you’ve downloaded the file it is yours, just like a physical book is, to print or loan if you wish but not to copy and hand out.

I’ve purchased publication rights and must also pay royalties; your respect for the time and expense of the original copyright holder as well as my own is very much appreciated. (If you need to convert the pdf to other ebook formats like epub or mobi, try Calibre, which is a free download).

Purchase Handcrafted Playgrounds digital download for $6 USD via Paypal


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play DIY, Resources

Its official name is Tårnlegepladsen / The Tower Playground, but I like the idea of a roof party…Denmark’s Monstrum has struck again, this time with a playground that takes the notable towers and rooftops of Copenhagen and brings them down to the ground, at kid-scale.  Delightful to anyone who has gazed at a tower, way up high, and wondered what it would be like to be up there.

There’s the roof of the stock exchange, and the city hall, the round tower, the dome of the Marble Church and the spiral tower of Our Savior’s.  A brilliant encapsulation of history, urban context, and imagination.

[All photos via Monstrum.  See the previous post on Monstrum’s playscapes here]

Posted in Contemporary Design

Given the enviable site of an old Victorian arboretum, it was natural that the story of this playscape be about trees… 

It is a dense structure, which plays with character of trees…sets up a relationship with adjacent  school building and vantage points (into park). There are light and open, small and cosy, fast and slow spaces of different timber materialities.”

Throughout the project, erectarchitecture ran workshops exploring the idea of  ‘what is adventure?’  ” During the first session the children where asked to state their idea of adventure on signs, which were permanently fixed in on site in the park, announcing the project to the wider community. Free-running workshops with Parkour Generations explored ‘Movement as Adventure’ and controlled risk taking. ‘Nature as Adventure’ introduced the children to playing with nature and natural materials but also to making spatial propositions. ‘Design as Adventure’ taught the children about structural principles, which they tested on simple large scale models afterwards making propositions for playground structures.”
I think this design is particularly brilliant at incorporating the sense of risk, and encouraging risk-taking (love that canted log rope-walk), within a ‘safe’ structure.  Notice also the use of doors as a motif (who doesn’t want to open a door into a secret land!)  and in the best tradition of repurposed materials on the adventure playground.
Posted in Natural Playgrounds

An amazing four-acre installation…I couldn’t stop collecting photos! [from here, there, and everywhere.]

CORRECTION: Thanks to my alert readers for pointing out that these are actually TWO playgrounds, both named St. Kilda’s. The wooden castle and boat are from St. Kilda’s in South Australia, and the colorful one with tires and slides are from St. Kilda’s in Melbourne. So confusing. But both great playspaces!
Posted in Natural Playgrounds
Grown-ups can build huts too…two famous ones are the 100-foot high contraption of Horace Burgess in Crossville, Tennessee, rumored to be the world’s largest (photo via inhabitat, thanks Michael for the link!)…

…and the seccessionist (literally, for he has formed his own nation, Ladonia) constructions of Lars Vilks on the coast of  Sweden.  This is Nimis.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

Interestingly, Kolle 37 grew out of an earlier movement, ‘Spielwagen Berlin’, in which grown-ups concerned about the lack of play opportunities in urban Berlin started a mobile playground that traveled to parks and public squares.

It is happily still in operation today, hosting what look like incredibly cool games.

Posted in Play History

Kolle 37 is another amazing adventure playground…located in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin for children 6 to 16. Uniquely, it is an integral part of a larger park complex, nearby to a central square and open air market.  Its perimeter fence even has openings that see through to the street and its sidewalk cafes.

In addition to the hut building which seems a central part of the Kolle 37 experience (shovel, hammer, crowbar, saw, nails, and wood are provided) children can also weave willow baskets, felt wool, make clay pottery and fire it in a kiln, cook over a fire and bake in a clay oven, and even blacksmith in a forge…the philosophical underpinnings of the place are a goal to understand the four (Aristotelian) elements of earth, air, water, and fire.  Plus there are rabbits, guinea pigs, gardens, and the older kids can work in a entrepreneurial bike rental shop.  An amazing place, and there should be so, so many more like it.

[Submitted by several readers, but first by Peter…thanks!]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds
One playscape with ‘real stuff’ is Glamis Adventure Playground, where a boat lies beached on sandy shaols near the entrance. The kids get to do real stuff as well; roasting courgettes over a fire, learning to repair bicycle tires, and adding to the playground themselves. A delightful cacophony of self-build and self-color, noise, dirt, and madness beckons from way down a street of plain brick facades in a challenging area of East London. Glamis is a registered charity, always in need of support and facing funding cuts for next year.  They’ve already disappeared once, and been recreated, so add your support!  I’m told they’ll soon have the ability to make a donation through their website

Thanks to reader Daniel Bigler for the introduction to this never-never land where the kids are well-supervised by a commited staff and allowed to do and build about anything that doesn’t destroy the existing structures, though grown-ups are called upon to help with advanced construction.  Daniel is also helping me with blog construction…adding searches, maps, announcements, etc, per your requests,  so watch this space!  And be happy – happy – happy.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds